Sunday, 9 August 2009
One Hundred Details
This happened two or three centuries ago and was written down in an old book which is how I came across it. It seems that there was a young woman with everything she could wish for. Her parents had always loved her, she had all the clothes she wanted and plenty of food to eat. She lived in a fine house, which if not a mansion was not a hovel either. Her name, my dears was Olive and she was tall and slim as a willow, with hair the colour of ripened wheat and eyes as green as gooseberries.
With all her opportunities, you'd think she might have become spoiled and squandered them all, but she did not. She dismissed love, though plenty longed to win her heart and studied until she became highly educated and even dare I say it, distinguished. She had, at that point in her life when she was not quite twenty-five, everything.
It has long been observed, even by wiser heads than my own that when all is joy, sorrow is not far behind. So I am afraid it was with Olive. For when she was looking at what to work at, Love that most treacherous of emotions took good aim at her heart and sent his golden arrow at her. She fell for an apparently dashing young man called Claude Bridgford who drove a red cabriolet and was a man of independent means as they used to say. He was not a Lord or a Duke or even a Baronet, he was in trade and very good trade at that. He was worth a great deal of money and plenty of women threw themselves in front of him to tempt him into marriage. He had become, as a result, very good at resisting temptations unless they involved horses or wine.
Olive knew all this and struggled desperately with her capricious heart until one night while they dined, he told her that if he could name one hundred details of significance in the painting of Southwark Docks by Sidney Longman he would marry her. She retorted that if he could find one hundred details of insignificance in a woman's life she might marry him. In all fairness they had dined and especially drunk well of a fine Cabernet that evening. Yet, the following morning neither had forgotten their comments. Unfortunate one might think, but both were of a competitive nature and desired to prove their worthiness before refusing pointedly the proposal of the other.
Sidney Longman, painter lived in Southwark in South London over a pie shop, which in good times was a treat and in poor times was a torment. Nonetheless, his studio had fine views over the river and for that reason alone was much loved by him. He had a large black cat called Strangeways for the cat had some very strange ways indeed. He was sure in his more drunk moments that the cat could talk and was equally sure that the cat must have been a piratical type of rogue in a past life. Strangeways was a ferocious mouser and equally brief in dealing with pigeons which have always been a part of London. He had been a witches cat once and some of the old witch's magicks had rubbed off on him. Occasionally in a thunderstorm, sparks could be seen in his fur and his eyes took on a light that was not quite proper. More than anything else, he had come to realise that of all the humans he had lived with, Sidney Longman was one he rather loved.
When times were good, both ate well and when times were poor, Longman always made sure that the cat was fed before himself. That sort of behaviour is inclined to favour a man in the eyes of the cat and Strangeways favoured Longman. Not a bad sort was how he described the artist to his friends in the alley.
When Olive called upon Sidney Longman and asked if she might examine the painting of Southwark Docks, Longman was a little surprised, but agreeable. Olive fetched a chair and fussed gently over Strangeways calling him a good cat, a fine cat and a most handsome gentleman of a cat. Strangeways was generally immune to meaningless flattery but could not help but agree with the young lady. He saw in her a possible wife for the artist, but would not interfere with Love's plans. Olive sat and considered the painting. She wrote down all the details of significance she could find and came up with thirty-two. She asked Longman for his help and what he thought would be significant in the painting.
"In a painting madam, everything is significant. Without any part the painting is not complete," he replied.
She considered this and began again. This time she found five hundred and sixty-four details and smiled. It was to her satisfaction. She thanked him and left the studio, caressing Strangeways again and reminding him of what a lovely cat he was. Again he could not find fault with her opinion.
But what of Claude Bridgford?
He had considered all the women he knew and realised that while plenty of women would like to know him, he did not know many women at all. It was a significant lapse in his own education, for a man who knows only other men ends by being incomplete. A woman who knows only other women however, usually has good friends to rely on. He went downstairs from his rooms at the Snorkhampton Arms and entered the saloon bar. There he found Marianne, the serving maid leaning against the bar. Her large blue eyes seemed to be staring at something not in this world and her long beautiful dark hair was bound up efficiently. She wore a serviceable cotton dress and an apron over it. On her feet she wore strong comfortable shoes and Claude saw in her a woman as unlike Olive as he was. She sighed and noticing him straightened up slowly and smiled.
"Can I help you Mr Bridgford?" she asked.
"I have been challenged Marianne to find one hundred details of insignificance in a woman's life. If I can do that I shall be able to marry the challenger, though I have no intention whatsoever of marrying the saucy minx," he answered.
Marianne was not sure she liked any woman being referred to as a saucy minx, though her sister Lulu LeGrand (as her stage name was) would probably have been highly gratified by it. She frowned and answered,
"Good luck sir, as far as I know there is very little of insignificance in a woman's life."
"Oh come now Marianne, surely there must be some things that are insignificant to a woman," he answered.
She was tempted at that point to answer that other than some men most things were significant to a woman. However, she kept her job by being more tactful than a diplomat and forebore. Instead, she considered and answered with a few things that she could think of. They amounted to six (not counting some men).
"Well you ladies spend inordinate amounts of time at your looking glasses, surely they are not all that significant?" Claude answered haplessly.
"If men had made the world more equal, women would not have to spend so much time considering their looks sir. Besides, why should a woman not care how she looks?" Marianne answered.
Claude harrumphed and invited her to sit with him and bring him a bottle of champagne while they sat. She did as she was asked and he asked her to tell him all the significant things in a woman's life in detail. It is to his credit that he did not faint when she told him in somewhat graphic detail all that a woman had to go through in her life. Even so, he became visibly paler and was constrained to drink rather a lot of champagne to fortify himself. He was forced to the realisation that he could not find one hundred details of insignificance in a woman's life. He was also brought to the realisation that he was slowly falling in Love with Marianne. Nobody ever said that Love played fair and with good reason.
"May I ask if you are married Marianne?" he asked.
"No sir I am not. I have not time to primp and preen for a husband so men do not look at me," she answered a little crossly.
"Then if I may be so bold Marianne," Claude asked her, his heart quickening, "Might I ask you if you would consider me for a husband?"
Marianne sighed and stood picking up the mostly empty bottle of champagne. He had clearly had too much to drink and she was not about to let him drink himself into a stupor. But to her surprise, Claude stood also and said with a look of sheer terror only ever caused by love's gamble,
"I am deeply in earnest Marianne. It is not drink but love that speaks when I ask you. I shall give you all the love I have and more besides," he said quickly, almost breathlessly.
Marianne gazed sceptically into his eyes and found that he was quite honest in his affections - along with his terror that she might reject him. She smiled, patted his hand and told him,
"Ask me tomorrow my dear when you are sober and if you still feel the same, I shall be delighted to marry you," she said gently.
It has to be said that she did not believe he would ask her when sober, but he took this thought with great delight and went out to buy a wedding ring.
Olive however had walked down the stairs and out past the pie shop. She had walked towards the Borough when it dawned on her that she did not love Claude Bridgford at all. The shock made her stop and enter the nearest alehouse where she ordered two large flagons of ale and drank them down quickly.
"Steady on love," the innkeeper warned her.
She ordered a game pie and another two flagons and thought hard. No, she did not love Claude. She liked him, he was a gentle bumbling sort of man, like a Golden Retriever in human form but she did not love him. In that moment, the image of Sidney Longman came to her mind and settled there. A decent, gentle man whose cat loved him and was quite something of a painter. With the right woman behind him, he might do well, she thought. She ate half of the game pie and drank the ale before getting up wrapping the other half of the pie in waxed paper and returning to the studio. Longman was surprised to see her again but quite shocked when she declared to him that not only was she in love with him, she had every intention of marrying him. So shocked in fact that he could not say her nay. Indeed that evening after she had left him, telling him to be at St Mortimer's Church in Stonegate at 11 'clock the next morning, he began to realise that she was quite the most delightful young woman he had ever met.
On his cushion upon the sopha in the corner of the room, Strangeways closed his eyes slowly in a smile. It would suit very nicely, he thought to himself.
The following morning at nine, Olive confronted Claude Bridgford with her list. He smiled beatifically, for at eight o'clock when Marianne had arrived for work, he had, quite soberly asked her to be his wife. So surprised was she to find that he meant it, that she accepted and he gave her the loveliest engagement ring. At that, she had melted and been taken into his arms and kissed.
"I'm afraid Miss Olive that the deal's off. I admit I lost the challenge, but I have asked another woman to be my wife and she has accepted," Claude told her.
"O Claude how wonderful! I too have found a man to be my love and husband all thanks to you. I shall marry Sidney Longman. All because of One Hundred Details. My dear friend for such I hope we may remain, I hope you and your lady love will be very happy," Olive answered and giving him a light kiss upon the cheek skipped down the stairs to a waiting carriage.
At eleven that morning at St Mortimer's and at St Filbert the Ordinary, Olive and Claude were married. Fortunately not to each other. Is not Love reckless?